'Cultivated with love': Palestinian farmers' markets flourish in the West Bank
"At the farmers' market, I sell my produce and wrap it with love," says Saad Dagher, a Palestinian farmer at a farmers' market in the West Bank, where activists have tried to create a profitable space for farmers to sell their products while also creating social bonds with their communities.
"I am happy as a farmer because I give the Palestinian consumers the best I can produce. It is cultivated with love and sold with love," Dagher, who sells his produce in Ramallah's market, told Middle East Eye.
Palestinian grassroots groups aim at supporting local farmers to both cultivate and protect their land through the Souk el-Fallaheen, weekly farmers' markets that have started in many Palestinian cities, amid Israel's plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank.
For Palestinian farmers, the ordinary way of marketing their products is by selling them to intermediaries, who then sell them on to supermarkets and shops. Usually, the middleman gets the highest percentage of profit, while the farmer, who actually produces the goods, gets very little and in many cases loses money.
"In the traditional market, a farmer sells to a trader, who seeks the lowest price from the farmer and the highest price from the consumer," says Saad Dagher.
Aisha Mansour, a volunteer with the Sharaka initiative that co-organises the farmers' market in al-Bireh, a city in the central West Bank, emphasises how the traditional market has turned farming into a financially useless career.
"In today's free-trade market, local farmers find it difficult to compete and earn a fair price for their produce. The market in the West Bank is flooded with cheap products from Israel to the detriment of local production."
The farmers' inability to market their produce has left some unwilling to plant in the first place. Consequently, some abandon farming and, by extension, neglect their lands, which could make it difficult for Palestinians to protect their lands from Israeli encroachment.
'Supporting farmers to stay on their farms and cultivate more plots of land is the main instrument to fight the building of new illegal [Israeli] settlements on Palestinian land'
- Rami Massad, volunteer
Israeli authorities have used different land laws to grab Palestinian agricultural lands, most notably one dating from 1858 that allows them to confiscate the uncultivated Palestinian plots and hand them over to Jewish settlers or use them for "military" purposes.
By contrast, the farmers' markets "give small-scale farmers a platform to promote their products directly to the consumers at a much better and fair price, in an environment that allows social interaction with producers," says Rami Massad, a volunteer with the Youth Partnership Forum, which organises the market in Nablus, a city in the northern West Bank.
"The market contributes to strengthening the farmers' resilience and expanding their work through a permanent marketing channel that makes farming financially feasible and encourages them to stay on the land and cultivate it, protecting it from confiscation.
"Supporting farmers to stay on their farms and cultivate more plots of land is the main instrument to fight the building of new illegal [Israeli] settlements on Palestinian land."
The first Palestinian farmers' market was started a few years ago in al-Bireh, but this summer it has witnessed an unprecedented turnout from both buyers and farmers. Activists were then inspired to start similar markets in other Palestinian cities such as Ramallah, Birzeit and Nablus.
Organisers believe that the success is down to the fact that the new markets provide an alternative to the traditional way of selling produce. They bring together those who aspire to achieve an alternative model of consumption and production at a time where the Palestinian economy, and the agriculture sector in particular, is experiencing severe problems due to the Israeli occupation and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Jamal Njoom, a farmer from al-Ouja town in the Jordan Valley, hopes that the farmers' markets will spread to all Palestinian cities, given how he can now sell his products at an excellent location in al-Bireh's city centre.
"The farmers' market encourages me because it financially rewards my effort in the cultivation of dates. I will stay on my land and try to increase the cultivated area next season," he said.
The market gives the farmers who live in rural areas in Area C, the part of the West Bank (about 64 percent) that is under Israeli control, a space to interact with Palestinian consumers who live in the cities in Area A. They not only sell produce, but also share their stories and experiences with customers, creating a bond that might lead to other forms of partnerships and cooperation.
'But here we build relationships. It is a unique social space where I meet my peers, talk with them, exchange seeds and experience, and learn about mutual problems and how to deal with them'
- Saad Dagher, farmer
Renad Shqairat, director of the Khalil Al-Sakakini Cultural Centre, which organises the farmers' market in Ramallah, believes that the presence of the markets in the cities are a sign that there are people who consciously care about the quality and source of what they consume.
"Such initiatives contribute not only to support farmers by eliminating the middleman, but also provide a platform for our community and our society to obtain uncompromised healthy products, mainly fruits and vegetables," she said.
Kamal Amin, a Ramallah resident who often goes to the market, says it is a space where people talk to farmers and listen to their stories and the challenges they face.
"I buy from the farmers to support them. We have a duty to support our national product coming from the areas threatened by the Israeli occupation," he says.
Amin believes in helping farmers to build their capacity and compete with goods produced in Israeli settlements in order to restore Palestinian food sovereignty.
"We must return to Mother Earth because it offers the solutions. All products here are non-chemical and non-carcinogenic. They are also local, which is what we're looking for," he says.
Dagher, who comes from Bani Zaid village north of Ramallah, thinks that traditional markets do not put farmers in direct contact with consumers and other agriculturists.
"But here we build relationships. It is a unique social space where I meet my peers, talk with them, exchange seeds, experience and learn about mutual problems and how to deal with them."
Organisers proudly point out that the market is a pure grassroots initiative and is not funded by any foreign agency.
"Our philosophy is based on the fact that activities and interventions should be done by using local resources. Therefore, Sharaka has refused aid to support its activities and has organised this weekly farmers' market using local partners and minimum resources," Mansour says.
"In our experience, development aid projects are short lived and not sustainable."
Njoom says he produces organic dates without chemicals and brings them fresh to the market where "a good number of people are interested in buying these products because they are natural".
Dagher, meanwhile, sees the farmers' market as an opportunity to introduce environmental agriculture, which he has adapted at his "Human Farm," where he produces tomatoes, eggplants, squash and many other products.
Haifa Zaytoun, a chef from Jerusalem, says that she always buys from the farmers' market to support the Palestinian farmers. She also trusts their produce, which she describes as excellent and free of harmful chemicals.
"I also like to support household women who work on food production, whether by cultivating their lands or raising their sheep. They make excellent cheese and labneh and their prices are suitable," she said.
Organisers also aim at making the market a green and environmentally friendly event by encouraging it to be plastic-free, especially regarding display boxes and shopping bags.
They encourage buyers to bring their own textile tote bags or buy paper bags that are offered at the market. Additionally, the farmers should come from areas nearby to cut on pollution caused by transportation.
Most importantly, the products sold on the market are seasonal, and the vegetables are produced in traditional and ethical ways. The organisers hope that this will slowly build an awareness of the need to eliminate waste and care for the environment.
The activists believe that making farming a profitable act by marketing products will encourage farmers to cultivate more plots of land in targeted areas.
With the markets already flourishing in some Palestine cities, other cities like Bethlehem and Jenin are starting their own in the coming weeks.